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McCants Stewart was born on this date in 1877. He was a Black lawyer.
He was born in Brooklyn, NY, the son of T. McCants (a respected nomadic Black southern leader) and Lottie P. (Harris) Stewart. Young Stewart received his early education in the public schools of Brooklyn, and the Claflin University, SC. After a number of run-ins with then school president Booker T. Washington, he graduated from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1896. That same year, he entered the University of New York, taking special work. In addition, in 1896, he attended the University of New York Law School.
He began working in his father’s law practice only to find that the senior McCants' methods were as strict as those of Booker T. Washington’s. Growing tired of these confining arrangements, he left New York to enroll in the University of Minnesota Law School. He never revealed his reasons for choosing a northern school or a state with a small Black population. Yet, maturity and a sense of purpose characterized his brief period in Minneapolis. In Minnesota he was a model graduate student, excelling academically and writing for the school paper. He was an active member of the Kent Literary Society. Stewart graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1899, receiving his master’s degree. He was the first Black at the University of Minnesota to achieve that distinction and was admitted to the bar in St. Paul soon after.
The Twin Cities possessed a small Black professional and leadership community when Stewart arrived and though he was registered to and expressed interest in opening a practice, he never succeeded in challenging the established Black professional class. Stewart migrated to the Dakotas where he entered the dairy business and prepared to practice law. This move did little to advance his legal career and he arrived in Portland, OR, in 1902. He was admitted to the bar of Oregon in 1903, becoming that states first Black lawyer. Stewart started active practice of his profession in Portland that same year. Stewart married Mary D. Weir of Minneapolis on August 22, 1905.
The highlight of his rather uneventful career being a civil rights case, Taylor v. Cohn, which he argued successfully in 1906.
He was a Republican but his political connections did little for his aspirations besides allowing his appointment to notary public. In 1914 he ran for public defender and lost. Stewart had a freak accident while running to board a streetcar, which required his leg to be amputated. Shortly after this, his vision gave him trouble and his practice declined. In 1917, he and his family moved to San Francisco only to find Black life and times equally as hard.
He and another attorney Oscar Hudson began a law practice, yet times were difficult and Stewart never saw the positive aspects in his future. Despite his partners assurances Stewart’s patience had waned by 1919. In a fit of resignation and in total despair, at the age of 42, McCants Stewart committed suicide on April 14, 1919, leaving behind his family and a number of debts.
Minnesota Historical Society
345 W. Kellogg Blvd.
Saint Paul, MN 55102-1906